Saturday, February 9, 2008

Badminton can save America

In the upcoming Olympics in August of this year, one of the least watched events (by Americans) will probably be badminton. That's as may be, but badminton in the United States is a great metaphor for diversity, international relations and global understanding.
Badminton evolved from a ancient Greek game known as Battledore and Shuttlecock, where two players would simply smack a shuttlecock (feathered ball) back and forth.
Today it is played all over the world and is the second most popular sport in the world, after soccer (according to some, anyway). The hardest smash was clocked at over 200 mph, coming off the racket. (The record was set by Chinese player Fu Haifeng, at the 2005 Sudirman Cup. Speed 332 km/h or 207 mph.)
One of the first things I did after moving to Colorado was find a place to play badminton. Personally I developed a love of the game while living in Beijing for 5 years. There, a friend's company rented out 5 courts every week at the Asian Games Village in the northern part of the city. The gym there had at least 40 courts set up, and it was hard to get court space even then.
But after returning to the US, I found that a great way to interact with the international crowd is to find a badminton club and start playing.
Take the Boulder Badminton Club, for example. This is where I play every Thursday night.

The club has several Chinese or Taiwanese members, and I usually seek them out quickly so I can practice my rusty Mandarin skills. During a doubles game last week, one Chinese player was paired up with a Romanian dude, and I was playing against them, with another Romanian dude. So right there you have representation from 3 countries.
Anyway, it turned out that the Romanian guy on the other team said a few words in Chinese to his partner. After the game, the Chinese partner asked him if he could speak Mandarin. The guy answered yes and so I chimed in that I could speak it, too. Liviu, for that was his name, was very excited and we started chatting away. He had taught himself Mandarin while in Romania. In Colorado he works at a hospital. He also said the guy I was playing with was his cousin, Zico, who used to be the coach of the national Romanian team.

Liviu told me that he has trouble speaking with Chinese people in America, since they are more aloof than those in Romania and don't want to practice with him. Sort of strange, but I suppose once you have been in the US for a while, you learn to be more suspicious than you were in other parts of the world.
Liviu also said he used to live in New Hampshire, and there he was met with other forms of suspicion. He said that there were lots of "hong bo zi" (rednecks) there and they would sometimes approach him and ask if he was an Arab, because if he was, they didn't like Arabs.
Interestingly enough, he said he preferred that type of up-front prejudice to the behind-your-back kind.

Anyway, back to my original premise. Americans can learn a lot playing badminton. In Boulder there are players from China, Taiwan, Romania, Canada, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Germany, England, Vietnam, and Russia. Probably some others too, but still, that's a lot. Games last about 15-20 minutes, and for that brief time, all the players on the court are united in their love of the game.
Insert clever conclusion here.

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